Non-HIV-related illnesses – cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease – heart problems and stroke – is becoming more common in people with HIV.

There are a number of possible reasons why this is the case.

First of all, HIV itself can cause inflammation that increases the risk of cardiovascular problems. One of the reasons why it's now recommended to start HIV treatment when your CD4 cell count is around 350 was because researchers noticed that this reduced the risk of heart disease compared to starting treatment when your CD4 cell count has dropped further.

Some anti-drugs, however, can cause increases in blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides) that can lead to a clogging and hardening of the arteries, increasing the long-term risk of heart disease. Not all HIV drugs have this as a side-effect, and there may be reasons why you should avoid drugs that do – if you smoke, for example, or have a family history of heart disease. Once you are on HIV treatment, you will have regular blood tests to monitor levels of fat in your blood to see if action is needed to reduce them. This might include changing HIV treatment, making changes to your lifestyle, or taking drugs (fibrates and statins) to lower your blood fats.

Your lifestyle can have a big impact on your risk of heart disease. So it makes good sense not to start smoking (or to stop smoking). Help from the NHS is available if you want to stop smoking, so ask your HIV clinic or GP. A diet including a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, and not too much fatty food like red meat and dairy produce, can also reduce your risk of heart disease. You can find out more in Nutrition and HIV. Regular exercise can also improve the health of your heart, veins and lungs. You can find out more about this in the section on Exercise.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.